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A taste of old Ceylon

by SUZANNE MIAO on Sep 15, 2011 in Architecture , Interiors , Lifestyle
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 Interior designer Niki Fairchild’s love for Sri Lanka is exemplified in the sensitive restoration of manor house in Tangalle dating back to the late 19th century and now a boutique holiday villa

To describe Maya as a labour of love would not be a stretch, for it took owner and interior designer Niki Fairchild the best part of a decade to realise her vision for the old waluawa (house). Situated in the rural village of Aranwella, eight kilometers from Tangalle in the island’s lush southern interior, Maya – named for the Sanskrit word meaning illusion or dream – was built by one of the ruling elite of Ceylon, whose family presided over the village for generations.

Previously known as Aranwella Walauwa, Maya is set within a rich landscape of tropical gardens and coconut trees, surrounded by paddy fields. "I had travelled a lot to Sri Lanka in the late ’80s and early ’90s on holiday, but it wasn’t until 2002 that I went to Tangalle for the first time for a wedding," says Fairchild. "That was when I realised that the further south you go on the island, the more beautiful it becomes."

Setting up a company in Sri Lanka to take advantage of a two-year window which allowed non-residents to purchase land, she had originally targeted coastal areas for her dream home when friends stumbled across Aranwella. "It was so beautiful; I just fell in love with it – it certainly wasn’t what I expected," Fairchild says.

Still occupied by the family which had lived there for decades, the house had fallen into disrepair as they were unable to maintain or sustain the upkeep required. Fortunately, all the buildings had solid ‘bones’, requiring minimal structural repair work beyond the roof, all of which was entirely replaced.

"It is much harder to restore a building than to build a new one," Fairchild says. "But Aranwella was in such good shape that it wasn’t as difficult as we initially thought it was going to be. You do have to go in completely prepared, of course, otherwise you’re going to find yourself rapidly out of your depth."

Working with Sri Lankan architect Pradeep Kodikara, she set about creating interior spaces which acknowledged the property’s Dutch and British period features, while also introducing contemporary living with clean lines and open expanses. A new wing was constructed to house additional bedrooms, and the centre courtyard transformed into a swimming pool.

"Pradeep is very low-key, and he’s prepared to turn down work because he doesn’t want to change the way he operates… That takes a lot of guts," says Fairchild. "At first, he turned me down when I approached him with this project – his style is very contemporary, so when I showed him pictures of this old house, he said ‘no, this is not what I do’. But when I explained that I didn’t want to create a cliché, that I wanted it to be modern, he accepted the challenge."

Maya’s five suites all afford 25-ft ceilings, some with four poster beds and private courtyards, and are individually named after trees in the grounds. Thekka and Kumbuk are situated in the Old House; Amba, Ehela and Kohomba are within the new wing.

The concept was to keep the house true to its original architecture, as evidenced through the restoration of all the woodwork and latticing. Some of the original lattice work designs from the Old House are used to frame the beds in the new wing, while contrast is provided via polished cement flooring throughout, binding the white contemporary framework of walls and surrounds.

Each of the original items of furniture was designed by Fairchild, who worked with local craftsmen to create pieces using locally-sourced materials. The use of teak wood with a natural finish retains a light and modern feel, and even the cement dining table and sofas in the pavilion appear weightless as a result of the clever application of holes cut into the design.

Added to this were items which the designer had collected over the years, as well as "some lovely old antique pieces to make the place feel warm and comfortable".

"I thought really, really hard about everything right from the beginning – I wanted space, not clutter, so that guests would have room to put down their own things on desks or cabinets or even in the bathroom," Fairchild explains. "This project challenged me, pushed me to take a different approach to design… There were a few dark days, of course, but I have really enjoyed it. Everything I imagined has turned out exactly as I hoped."

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